True confession: The Raleigh Symphony Orchestra has been brightening my musical life for a long, long time. Why? Because its members - like artists in other community and university-based orchestras - donate their professional services, by and large, and play for the love of the music. Although it has rarely played quite as precisely or as accurately as the folks in our fancy (albeit invariably much-too-cold) downtown hall - you know the one, the place with the harsh industrial lighting in the lobby - the RSO's performances have, over the years, given considerable musical pleasure. And there have been some occasions - more than a casual observer might think - when the artistic rewards of hearing the RSO have exceeded pleasures derived elsewhere.
The RSO is one of several orchestras based in the capital. For all but one of 'em - the NC Symphony - that means big-time competition, and not just of the artistic kind. Executive directors of these other outfits - the RSO and the two orchestras of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association - have from time to time told me that the public is confused by "so many orchestras," that they get calls asking how to get to the BTI Center (where these groups don't play), etc., etc. It's clearly tough, being in the shadow of "America's next great orchestra" - even in the past 20 years or so, when it had no such grandiose pretensions....
We've hinted recently at the challenges faced by the directors of college and university orchestras and ensembles, since they have to do a lot of rebuilding at the start of every school year. The challenges are not the same for our community orchestras - the RSO, the Durham SO, and the Chapel Hill Philharmonia - because there's somewhat less turnover in personnel from year to year. Change does occur, however. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's not.
One boon to the RSO has been the arrival of Tasi Matthews, who headed the first violin section at the October 10 concert in Jones Auditorium. The group plays from strength, too, thanks to the presence of Assistant Concertmaster Izabella Cohen. Suzanne Bolt is Principal Violin II. The other string sections are led by violist Michael Castelo, cellist Jane Salemson, and bassist Dan Zehr. These last three have been around for a while, serving music and the community. This time, there were 44 strings on the roster and 70 players, all told. That's the norm, hereabouts - the NCS' official size is 66 this season. Only the universities have more players. As a friend of CVNC said in a recent email concerning the Duke SO, size matters, and it's good that the RSO has grown a bit.
So the RSO was big enough to fill the Jones Auditorium stage, and on the podium was Alan Neilson, who has devoted his life - since he gave up playing the flute for the NCS - to community music-making and education. He's a good program-builder, and this one was at once unusual and refreshing. Things got underway with the National Anthem, which this old scribe thinks should begin all concerts, since we are at war.
Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony was next, followed by the Overture to Wagner's Rienzi . Normally, it's the other way 'round. The Mendelssohn, paced admirably, sizzled. The low strings were rich and full - in part, surely, because some of the players were in the hall, forward of the arch. The upper strings played with breathtaking precision, accuracy, and unanimity. The winds and brass were fine - much better than has sometimes been the case. Balance was outstanding. This was a performance that had a great deal going for it. It was easily one of the RSO's - and Neilson's - finest hours. The Rienzi Overture was amazing, too. It's a true potboiler, and it was ruined for a whole generation of people by the Nazis, but it is a fine piece of music that leads to an opera well worth exploring. In Jones, it sizzled like the Mendelssohn, and when it ended, one felt like running out into the street to take on the Colonnas or the Orsinis (of the story) or some more contemporaneous political bunch....
The afternoon's big event was the world premiere of a new Piano Concerto by Sophia Pavlenko, and Charlie Gaddy, former WRAL news anchor, was on hand to recount, briefly, the story of the talented young pianist and composer from Kiev, trained at the same school that produced Horowitz, who met and fell in love with Paul Chandley when she visited Troy (NC) with a touring orchestra. Now she's Mrs. Chandley, living and working at the Music Academy where he hangs his hat.
The new work, optimistically billed as Piano Concerto No. 1, is a big, flashy, attractive piece, in three movements. The piano part is impressive and was impressively realized by the composer. The orchestral portions are skillfully integrated - balance seemed never to be a problem. Neilson is a fine accompanist, and the performance was very beautiful. The music is a bit of a mixture of famous Russian pieces - Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov. A musician sitting nearby mentioned Mussorgsky - yes, there's a hint of that earlier style in it, too. If at times it sounded a bit like movie music - I use the term advisedly, with no negative intent - that's ok, since both Prokofiev and Shostakovich produced film music, and some of their music not meant for films has turned up in them. The slow movement is as beautiful and as spellbinding as the slow movement of Shostakovich's Second Concerto. The music community was buzzing about the new work well before the concert: Richard Ruggero, who provided the Bösendorfer Imperial piano Pavlenko played, wrote about the work in an email to his customers. Critics tend to discount such reports; I went to the dress rehearsal to hear for myself, and then I skipped the New Zealand String Quartet - for which I'd bought a ticket - to go back to hear Pavlenko's work again. The program notes reflect the composer's love for her new homeland and speak of the "American" nature of the score; these qualities eluded this listener, but perhaps they will become more apparent over time. In any event, here's hoping it will be given again, and often. It's a wonderful addition to the repertoire. And the performance was terrific, too.
In retrospect, there probably was too much going on at the concert, because the last work was another piece for piano and orchestra, and a well-known one, too - Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The soloist was Paul Chandley, and that may have been a mistake as well, for the family's sake. Alone among the works presented, this one seemed not up to snuff, in terms of preparation and execution. The music was often rushed, resulting in blurred passages as opposed to the clear articulations Pavlenko achieved in her music. The crowd was happy, and both soloists were warmly received, but one soloist and one solo piece might have been enough - particularly if it had been the new work, instead of the Gershwin.
It was a four-bouquet afternoon, based on the flowers presented to the guest artists. It was a spectacular success for the RSO, which has never sounded better. Bravo.